Developing a Dissertation Topic and writing a proposal

This worksheet is intended to provide you with a framework for thinking  through the stages of coming up with an idea for your project and developing it to the stage that you have a clear plan of how you will go about carrying it out.

Further much more detailed information can be found in Bryman, A and Bell, E (2011) Business Research Methods 3rd ed, OUP: Oxford  and a very good, simple, generic and holistic approach can be found in Levin, P (2005) Excellent Dissertations! OUP: Oxford

Choosing a Topic

Where do I start?

Where do ideas for dissertations come from? The answer is a variety of sources

  • Personal Interest – it is vital that you are interested in the topic you choose. And you should expect that the ideas you come up with to be influenced by your background, culture, education and experience.
  • Relevance to field, your work or the course – what MEANS something to you?
  • Experience – topics based on what you have seen happening around you – part time students who are currently in work often have an advantage here, but FT students may well have come across interesting topics during summer or part-time employment
  • Need or Purpose – what might you NEED to do in your current or prospective line of work
  • Debates and controversies in your field – what are there disagreements about?
  • Literature – on reading the literature are there ways to extend or refine previous research? Are there gaps?
  • Epistemology – “how do we know issues” – for example we often ask “has a policy or new procedure been successful?” But just as important is “how would we KNOW whether a policy has been a success?”
  • Resources & Access – what types of information can I easily get hold of?


Beware of

  • Very new topics – you won’t get much help from the literature: this is Masters level work, not a PhD
  • Very well covered topics – you will have trouble finding something different


  • Pressure from tutors
  • Pressure from other students
  • Pressure from an employer
  • Pressure from yourself – don’t choose a topic just because you think you do well in that subject area


Now try to think of some topics you might be interested in – just a sentence will be fine at this stage – no need to make it sound like a title either – that can come later.

Sources of Topics

Source Potential Topic
What areas of business and management am I most interested in?


Have I seen things at work that I’m interested in, that I’d like to find more about?


Have I read anything that has sparked my interest? Have I read about something that happens elsewhere that might happen in the UK/my workplace/in Cumbria etc?


Are there areas of controversy or disagreement about how things in an area I’m interested in?


What topics might it be easy for me to get information about?





You need to pick a project topic that is feasible, which means ‘do-able’ in the short time that you have.


What is ‘feasible’?

Many student project proposals are initially over- ambitious. They are often very wide-ranging in their focus and could present significant problems for students in collecting primary data.


The best projects are those where:

  • The topic is of particular interest to you.
  • You can easily collect information – the information is readily available,
  • or you can collect and analyse it easily, and within a short time period
  • The aim of the project is focused on a particular aspect of a chosen topic


For Example

Not Feasible Feasible
The importance of the WTO rules

governing exports for the future of

Chinese exports”


(Too vague and over-ambitious – ALL exports? To everywhere? To all organisations? Since the first rules? How do you get information on “the future” in all these sectors? )


“The impact on SMEs of the 2007 changes to WTO rules governing the export of Chinese textiles to Europe”


(The focus is on a particular

commodity in a particular location, within a defined time span and a particular type of organisation – and the information will be readily available


 The general rule is that you start with a vague area of interest then narrow it by

  • Subject (or sub-subject eg marketing becomes internet marketing)
  • Geography (country, county, town – Tourism in the lake district, not the UK)
  • Sector (eg The computer industry not ALL industry)
  • Time (since 2000, since the collapse of Northern Rock – make sure the time period is meaningful)



  • You must be able to complete the project given the time and resources that are available this may mean that:
    • Primary research will be difficult unless you have very good access to the people you want to obtain information from and you are sure that they will provide the information that you will need within the time.
    • In many cases, secondary research (desk research) will be the most viable option, using data already available and easily accessible.


So try it for a couple of areas that you identified above as those you might be interested in studying for your dissertation:


Area I’m Interested in More focussed Topic



Getting Started – Aims, Objectives, Research Questions

OK, you have an idea for your project. Now you need to prepare a project proposal.


Firstly, remember that a dissertation is NOT a very long essay. It is NOT a matter of identifying a topic and then writing all you can find out about it.


The focus of a dissertation is to gather information in a way that is appropriate and valid in order to answer a set of questions which you define to start with.


You have already thought about a topic you would like to investigate and narrowed it down a bit


Now you need to identify AIMS and OBJECTIVES (or general and specific research questions) that will guide your investigation


Your first job is to define your AIM, your GENERAL RESEARCH QUESTON – Try it: now:

What is the main aim of your research?

Write just one or two sentences that summarise what you want to achieve from your research: What, in just one or two sentences, do you want to find out?


Now from this identify specific objective or research questions that will help you to achieve this main research aim.


Write them in such a way that they read as

  • Questions to be answered (“do large formal interview panels put more stress on job candidates than one-to-one informal interviews?”)
  • Problems to be solved (“how stress on job interviewees might be reduced”)
  • Hypotheses to be tested (“there is no significant difference in stress levels experienced by job interviewees undertaking formal and informal interviews”)

Before you write them down ask yourself will you be able to get access to information that will allow you to answer the question/solve the problem/test the hypothesis?


After you’ve written them down ask yourself the same question again!

If the answer is ‘no’, or ‘perhaps not’ then go back and think of other questions/problems/hypotheses where information is more accessible.

Don’t forget, this is a small scale research project, so you should aim to

generate a manageable number of research questions. If you have more than

four or five questions in mind, discuss these with your tutor or supervisor first.


Question 1


Question 2


Question 3


Question 4


Question 5





Next you need to be confident that your questions are worth answering – you don’t want the response to your carefully crafted research to be “So What?”!

What is the background to your interest in this topic area and in pursuing this research area? Why have you chosen this topic? Why is it interesting and important to you and others. Why would it be useful to have the answers to these questions?

Summarise briefly the reasons why this topic is likely to be of interest to the business community – and to you


Literature Review

In the literature review section of the proposal you outline what previous research has been done on the topic and how it has guided or informed your own research.


For this dissertation we ask you to do the Literature Review in TWO PARTS. For the Dissertation Proposal we ask you to look for material to support the topic, to ensure it is there and that there is an underpinning literature. We don’t necessarily expect you to have done ALL the reading at that early stage. We ask you to do that once you have agreed your topic and met with your supervisor for guidance (see your dissertation guide).


But the sooner you engage with the literature the better: Read the handouts on “Critical reading and writing” and “Restatement, Description and Interpretation” and use the table below to ensure you produce a literature review rather than a simple restatement of what you have read! An excellent source to read before you start this is Mike Wallace and Alison Wray’s (2011) Critical reading and writing for postgraduates 2nd edition, Sage, London.


We suggest you should engage with some or all of the following

Questions as you read your books, articles and other sources:

Area to Address Your Notes
What previous

research has

already been done on this topic?

Who did it, when

and, perhaps, why?


What conclusions

did previous

researchers reach?

How relevant are

these conclusions

today generally and

for your own


How will your

research build on

previous research?

How is it similar or


What theories,

models or practices

are particularly

relevant to prepare

or analyse your

research topic and


How has previous

research influenced

your own intended


methodology and



Don’t forget

To Write Down the FULL REFERENCE of everything you read


Don’t forget

The reading you do may cause you to adjust, alter and change he research topic, the aim of your research and the research questions you intend to raise. THIS IS NORMAL, expected and perfectly OK to do!



The research topic, the research questions you intend to raise and previous work done on this topic, will influence your methodology


OK, let’s make a start. What methods do you intend to adopt to gather information in pursuit of answers to your research questions?


Actually, that is asking the question the wrong way round. It is far better to work from your research questions – start by asking what information you need to answer each question THEN think of the different ways in which you could get that information


For Example


Research Q What info do I need to answer this question? Where might I get this info from? How (by what method) might I get this info? Comments
How much time do managers spend filling in quality forms? Number of forms


How many forms quality related


How many minutes spent



Asking managers




Quality manuals







Desk-based analysis

Observation impractical. Interview and/or Qnaire? Can I do both? Will the quality manager talk to me?



OK, referring back to the questions you came up with earlier (which of course may have changed by now!) fill in the table as fully as you can.


As you fill it out think carefully about how easy it will be to get the information you need for example

  • Where and how will you gather secondary data? Is it easily available?
  • Where, how, and when will you gather primary data, if applicable?


Research Q What info do I need to answer this question? Where might I get this info from? How (by what methods) might I get this info? Comments
Question 1



Question 2



Question 3



Question 4



Question 5





It should now be clear exactly what information you need to gather for your dissertation


You should now also be in a position to decide HOW you will collect that information


  • Note that there are often several ways in which you might get the information – in which case you need to weigh up the options taking into account issues, and often having to balance factors such as the “best” way (see notes on validity and reliability), the time available, the availability of personnel, the cost etc etc.


  • Sometimes compromises have to be made – for example, although desirable it may be difficult to gather primary data, and you may have to settle for analysing secondary, and more easily available data. Sometimes RESOURCES (time or cost) may restrict how much data you will be able to . You then have to decide whether you can get meaningful results with a limited data set – or whether you need to ask a different question.


  • Sometimes it may be practical to collect the same data in more than one way – this allows for TRIANGULATION of results, and can give greater confidence in your results


  • You MIGHT find that there is a question that you will have great difficulty in getting the information required … in which case you will have to CHANGE THE QUESTION and go through the process again


  • Do be careful if you change the question you are still addressing your overall aim … you might need to change that too.



Now you’ve made those important decisions fill out the form again – this time adding in the fourth column any practical issues or ethical problems that might need resolving before you can go into action.


Research Q Information to Collect Source(s) of Info Methods of Collection Practical & Ethical issues
Question 1



Question 2



Question 3



Question 4



Question 5





Types of research

You also need to think about the overall theoretical nature of your research.

This topic is outlined in detail in most research methods text books and there are handouts on the blackboard site


However, just to remind you of a few basic points:


Types of research (your research proposal may contain more than one type):

Exploratory research Descriptive research Analytical research Predictive research
Exploratory research

is undertaken when

few or no previous

studies exist. The aim

is to look for patterns,

hypotheses or ideas

that can be tested

and will form the

basis for further


Typical research

techniques would

include case studies,

observation and

reviews of previous

related studies and



Descriptive research

can be used to

identify and classify

the elements or

characteristics of

the subject, e.g.

number of days lost

because of industrial



techniques are often

used to collect,

analyse and

summarise data.


Analytical research

often extends the

Descriptive approach

to suggest or explain

why or how

something is

happening, e.g.

underlying causes of

industrial action.

An important feature

of this type of

research is in locating

and identifying the

different factors (or

variables) involved.


The aim of

Predictive research

is to speculate

intelligently on

future possibilities,

based on close

analysis of available

evidence of cause

and effect, e.g.

predicting when and

where future

industrial action

might take place




Research approaches:

Research can be approached in a number of ways – these are some of the most significant:


  1. Quantitative/Qualitative


Quantitative Qualitative
The emphasis of Quantitative

research is on collecting and

analysing numerical data; it

concentrates on measuring the

scale, range, frequency etc. of


This type of research, although

harder to design initially, is usually

highly detailed and structured and

results can be easily collated and

presented statistically.

Qualitative research is more

subjective in nature than

Quantitative research and involves

examining and reflecting on the less

tangible aspects of a research

subject, e.g. values, attitudes,


Although this type of research can

be easier to start, it can be often

difficult to interpret and present the

findings; the findings can also be

challenged more easily.

Deductive Inductive
Deductive research moves from

general ideas/theories to specific

particular & situations: the

particular is deduced from the

general, e.g. broad theories.


Inductive research moves from

particular situations to make or

infer broad general ideas/theories


Positivist Non-Positivist
A positivist approach regards the world as external and objective, The observer is independent of what is being studied and therefore research should be value free.


It should focus on facts, and look for causality and fundamental laws


Often Positivist research will try to reduce phenomena to simplest elements (reductionism) and attempt to formulate hypotheses and then test them,

operationalising concepts so that they can be measured


A non-positivist approach treats the world as socially constructed and subjective. The observer is part of what is being observed and research is driven by human interests


It should focus on meanings to the subjects and try to understand what is happening in context


It will often try to look at the totality of the situation (Gesteldt), often content to describe and evaluate rather than necessarily measure.





Note that these are EXTREME descriptions, and many research projects combine a number of approaches, e.g. may use both quantitative and qualitative approaches


So, now try to summarise your overall research approach in the space below, e.g. type of research; research approach.


It is quite possible that having thought about your APPROACH and the implications of that you may want to go back and reconsider your aim, your questions and your methods – that’s OK, go and do it NOW – research planning is an on-going reflective activity


Research Schedule

You can now move on to thinking about the time scale for this work.


Clearly this must remain flexible, but it is helpful to be thinking straight away about what tasks need to be done, in what order and by WHEN

It is often helpful to break your project down into tasks and subtasks each with a START and an END point. Make these tasks SHORT and make sure they have specific OUTCOMES so you know when you have done them –  (not “going to library”, but rather, “search literature”).

Use verb-noun form for naming tasks, e.g. “create questionnaire” or “write outline”. Use action verbs such as “create”, “define” and “gather” rather than “will be made”.

Make sure that each task has a duration. It can be very difficult to estimate how long it is going to take to do things accurately. Particularly When you are thinking about the data collection stage, allow ample time for this, as if you are trying to arrange to talk to people, or gather data from questionnaires, it can take much longer than you think to organise. For example, it can be notoriously difficult to contact busy people and agree a meeting time when both the researcher and interviewee are free. Busy people often put questionnaires to the bottom of their in-tray, so do not expect high responses from questionnaires. There are some suggestions in the handouts on BlackBoard, but as a rule of thumb Doubling your best guess usually works well.

It is often worth identifying “Milestones” – important checkpoints or interim goals for a project. These can often help you make sure you are on track to complete your project on time. As with tasks, name by noun-verb form, e.g. “questionnaire devised”, “statistical report ordered”, “first draft complete”.

It also helps to identify risk areas for project, for example, things you don’t know how to do but will have to learn. Similarly, you may not know how long it will take to get questionnaires back. These are risky because you may not have a good sense for how long the task will take.

It is usually most helpful to START WITH YOUR END DATE (in this case the day you have to hand in your dissertation) and work BACK to now, not forgetting any interim deadlines you have to hit – for example the literature review that is due just after Christmas.

Many people like to set out their plan in the form of a GANTT CHART (see handout on project planning) this can be produced by Microsoft Project or Excel (see instructions on BlackBoard.

It can, however, be just as effective to produce a table with dates and actions clearly outlined

However you decide to do it your plan will evolve so be prepared to be flexible and update it on a regular basis.


You are now in a position to produce the research proposal described in your dissertation guidelines.

If you have worked through this document you will have assembled all the information you need to produce a proposal under the headings specified in Appendix E of the dissertation guidelines and reproduced below

This piece of work WILL NOT be assessed, but remember it is both a qualifying assignment – you must complete it in order to pass the module, and also an on-going piece of work, some of which you will use in your final dissertation and some of which you should return to and modify to guide your research over the coming months